Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Trinitarian theory of catechesis

Mind's been in overdrive since my arrival here at the St. Meinrad Archabbey. Wait for another political analysis. But for now, I want to put my notes on Catechesis here.

Soon I will be teaching an introductory Catechism class to parents and their young children at the same time. The difficulty of the project has forced me to consider my goals and strategies. What began as a reflection on the nature and purpose of games and toys in Catechesis, has developed into something like a Trinitarian theory of Catechesis. Let's see how it looks.

Considering that the doctrine of the Trinity is not the product of speculative reason (though neither is it arbitrarily historical), it has a shocking degree of value for speculation. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, along with their varying roles and intrinsic unity within revelation, yield an unending series of correlates which have assisted in human thought about mind, time, being, and pastoral theology. Consider these various correlations:

[by the way, everything in this post falls under the universal theologian's disclaimer. You know, that thing about all language is analogical and symbolic, God is ungraspable mystery, etc. and so on, ad infinitum. It also falls under the amatuer theologian's disclaimer: I make no claims to originality or accuracy. In other words, set your expectations low.]

TrinityFatherSonHoly Spirit
Theological VirtuesFaithCharityHope

Now, these classical correlations have a coextensive connection with the Trinitarian formula; they inform one another. All of the first terms tell us something distinctive of the Father; that he is the begetter, pure mystery, Origin of Origins (though, of course, not in a temporal sense). Fr. Robert Baron of Mundelein Seminary teaches that Buddhism and other schemas of pure negative theology can be said to have a profound spirituality of the Father. Thus God has allowed us to attribute to God the Father elements of originality, of being the source, the root, that which is our highest desire but which does not come to us unmediated. Thus the Father is symbolically Lord of the Past, whence flows our wellspring of revelation and salvation.

The second Person of the Trinity, Son, the Logos, the Incarnation, is the middle (and hence 'central', 'pivotal') term of the Trinity; the beloved of the Father, and the Father's love for beloved Creation, the one and only Mediator. Mediation, as distinct (but not separate) from Origin, is the common characteristic of the Son. The soteriological principle--what is not assumed is not redeemed--places Christ as the fulfillment of what comes before and the impetus of what comes after; at the same time the completion of human destiny and the entire Word of God.

The Holy Spirit is the advocate, the one sent by the Son, who directs, protects, and empowers the Church as the visible Body of Christ. Emphatically, the Holy Spirit not only shows us Christ but empowers us to say yes to what we are shown; the Spirit is thus the very life of the Church, making possible the inclusion of the Church within the dynamic of the Father and the Son as the Lover and Beloved. I will take a risk here and suggest that the central term for thinking the Spirit is Transformation.

The pattern of Origin, Mediation, and Transformation forms something like a logical skeleton around which Trinitarian 'analogies' are formed. In the case of the Transcendentals, Truth has the most immediate reference to 'What Is' and hence yields something of the character of primacy, whence Goodness and Beauty (no less vital) emerge; Goodness corresponds to Mediation because Truth ceases to be 'cold' and 'objective' and instead takes on value, thus for the first time soliciting the attention of the valu-ers... in other words, that which is both True and Good takes on a kind of hypostatic union of the objective Original and the subjective anthropological--a union which ends the futility of desire and the unattainability of the Original. Beauty corresponds to Transformation because of the transformative power of eros, as inspired by awe.

Now, in the midst of all this ethereal speculation, I have a very practical Trinitarian set:


Here we see that the practical foundations of good catechesis can make use of the same categories. Catechesis is a deeply different activity than simply teaching, because its goal is salvation; thus, whatever its methods, it should be conductive to the sanctification of the students. Doctrine is the root (the 'Origin') of Catechesis. Transformation takes the shape of Grace-accompanied experience (liturgy, service, devotion, etc). But the most controversial element of this schema is the middle term.

Among my conservative seminarian friends, there is a popular contempt for the use of games in catechesis. This is a reaction to a reaction; the post Vatican II popular church raged against the stilted and hyper-disciplinarian Baltimore memorization of the past. With all of the flair and romanticism of Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, Catechism teachers of children and adults jettisoned, in varying degrees, objectivity from the parish classroom. The reign of Schleiermachian psychologized cuddly-wuddliness has been dominant for more than 30 years--longer than most of my conservative friends have lived. Hence, to us, it is self-evident that we have systematically encouraged a generation of Catholics to understand God predominantly as a projection of their most deeply rooted satisfactions and personalities. "Who is God for you?" asks the grandmotherly sister to her RCIA students. God is as I have experienced her/it/them.

The standard prejudice is that the deepest root of this phenomenon, where it happens, is simply a vapid, wide-eyed, ideological niceness--once called "nicety-nice at any price" by a bitter Catholic forumite (shockingly, not yours truly). Nice-ism has come to be viewed as a great plague of parishes, both in liturgy and in catechesis. Accordingly, seminarians like to scoff at the use of games in catechesis; such teachers "sell out," in a sense, to the promise of a non-conflictual, "nice" time spent with their students. In exchange, they give up any partaking in the preparation of the student to understand their faith in a world where it is more likely to be attacked than ever.

But I believe these seminarians, while having a strong point, forget the indispensibility of delight--delight which was, more likely than not, an ingredient of their own reception of the faith, whether they like to admit it or not. (And if their catechesis was in fact joyless, one wonders at the quality of their wish to inflict the same upon others). All age groups need play, games, fun; certainly, especially children. But even adults need to be given reason to laugh when they learn--no amount of importance of the material can withstand the power of the appetite to sleep through boredom.

Play, I suggest, has three critical purposes, one of which I would like to elaborate in more detail. In the first place, it is simply and immediately healthy. In the second, play is the school of enjoyment and hence of all value; games, toys, sports, and stories delight the child even while they continually broaden the child's notion of the delightful. It is incredibly important that the lessons our Faith grants us be transmitted in a delightful way; and moreover, I suggest that, through delight, there is virtually no limit to the real complexity of the concepts which can be transmitted to even the youngest children. Anthropologically speaking, there is nothing immediately intuitive about the whole business of driving a car; yet hardly a teenager in this country does not expect to, thanks to the toys they had as chidlren. Why should we not then use games to inculcate the expectation to receive the Sacraments?

But the third purpose, I believe, is less obvious and even more vital. Play is not only the school of what is good, but the school of the very hope for the good. Play is the realm of surprise, of the unexpected, of joy that leaps effortlessly above the predictable rat race of appetite and wish-fulfillment. Play does not obey that determinitive logic, and I am certain that a healthy play life is the best immunization to any satisfaction or infatuation with utilitarianism, either as an ideal or a way of life. Salvation is not (essentially) the fulfillment of any natural need we feel on earth. It does, de facto, fulfill all needs; but more importantly it is the promise of infinitely more joy than we could have imagined, come to us even in this life. In fact, as C.S. Lewis demonstrates in The Great Divorce that too meager a desire can itself be the thing that keeps us from God. Evangelization is not only promising that in God people's wishes are granted; nor is it to get people to think predominantly of others' needs before their own; it is to show how the Glory of the Lord explodes our needs and those of others. It invites us to be daring in our quest for that Glory, in which the service of others ceases to be an important, difficult thing, but a weightless trifle.

Delight in catechesis teaches students, especially children, the most important lesson they could learn: that the greatest things in life are things we never thought to ask for. After all, we didn't ask for Jesus Christ, either--all the more reason why both occupy the "middle term" of the Trinity.

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